What I learned from Nanowrimo

I originally posted this to Reddit r/writing. It was taken down immediately by the AutoModerator bot for violating a rule against “promotion and solicitation of [your] discord servers.” I messaged the admins to ask for approval, and got no response, so I’ll post it here instead.

Nanowrimo (https://nanowrimo.org/) is the National Novel Writing Month. In short, it’s a challenge to write 50,000 words (on average, at least 1,667 words each day) during the month of November.

I’ve made a halfhearted effort at it a few times in previous years and gave up by day 2 or 3. I always believed that before I could write the first sentence of the first chapter, I had to have an outline of my entire story in my head so I’d know where I’m going with it. Without knowing where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there, it would be like hopping in my car and driving around randomly, and that would never bring me anyplace interesting or meaningful, right? But I never had more than a few ideas to begin with – some characters I wanted to use, some scenes I wanted to write.

I resolved to do Nano this year to prove to myself that I could. But November 1 came before I could think up my entire story. So, I did the only thing I could do: I began writing and hoped that the ideas would come to me. (This is what they call seat-of-your-pants writing, or ‘pantsing.’) And, to my surprise, the ideas came.

So I’d like to share the things I learned from the experience.

First, sit down and write. Really. Got an idea for a character? Write about them. Throw some challenges at them and see how they react. Have an idea for a scene you’d like to write, but you don’t know how to get there in your story or what to do with it afterwards? Write it out anyway. Time spent dumping your thoughts out onto a page is better than time spent thinking about what you might write if you were to write. You can’t improve something that hasn’t been written yet.

And while you’re writing, kick your inner editor to the curb. Don’t agonize over a sentence or a paragraph and get hung up rewriting it over and over until it’s ‘perfect.’ It’s much more important to get the words onto the page and keep going.

I recommend you don’t ask for feedback on your first paragraph or even your first sentence. That’s like mixing flour and sugar and then asking people “is this going to be a good cake?” You need to finish making the cake first so that you can see how it comes out and how you want to improve it.

Second, your first draft will be terrible. (Most likely.) Don’t fret – everybody’s is. The goal is to create something that you can work with. When you’re finished writing, that’s when the editing phase begins, and each time you edit it you’ll find more ways to make it better.

I found that, freed from the obligation to write sparkling prose in my first draft, I actually avoided writer’s block. Any time I didn’t know what to write next, I just picked the first thing that came to mind – like once, in the place where I was writing there was samba music playing, so I decided to put my characters into a dance hall with a Latin band on stage and imagine what they’d do from there. The scene I came up with might not get into any subsequent drafts, but it contributed to my 50,000-word goal, and a few ideas appeared in there that I could go in new directions with.

Third, you need the right tools to write with. The app “Scrivener” (for Windows, Mac, and iOS) seems to be the most popular these days; it lets you organize your sections and your notes. It’s often available at a discount. Also, to get past basic issues with grammar, tense, and word choice (because those can be hard to see in our own work), “Grammarly” and “ProWritingAid” are popular.

Fourth, find a community to encourage you and support you. Reddit has a lot of good people on it, but I got frustrated when I posted something for critique and someone said it was bad because the genre ‘wasn’t his thing.’ So I found a writing group on Discord. I give constructive criticisms of their work and they do the same for mine; we get to know each other and it helps us all become better writers and better critics.

And finally, do whatever works for you. All of my suggestions here could be wrong, so if you’ve found something different that helps you, stick with it.

I ‘won’ Nano this year; I stuck to my goal of writing at least 1,667 words per day and double that on Saturdays and Sundays, and I crossed the finish line on November 22. The ‘novel’ I came up with is hardly a novel and isn’t even really a coherent story, and I don’t know whether it’s something I’ll continue to work on … but the important thing is that it exists and I could work on it, and I’ve proved to myself that I can find the time and make the effort if I really want to. It’s a good feeling. I’ll do Nano again, and next time I’ll work on having a clearer idea and a workable outline before November starts.

Keep writing!